Saturday 31 March 2018

The Rise and Fall of the Real-Time Strategy Genre

Real-time strategy is the name given to a genre of video games in which the player builds and maintains a large military force which he or she then takes into battle. The genre is differentiated from turn-based games by taking place in real-time, requiring fast reflexes and a good spatial awareness to keep track of multiple areas of the battlefield simultaneously.

The genre was codified in the mid-1990s by games such as WarCraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) and Command and Conquer (1995), although the earliest examples of the genre are generally held to be Carrier Command (1988), Herzog Zwei (1989) and Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis (1992). The genre was massively popular in the late 1990s, arguably reaching an apex with Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996), Total Annihilation (1997) and StarCraft (1998). The genre subsequently struggled with a move into 3D and a series of commercial failures followed. The genre became significantly less popular in the following decade, although WarCraft III (2002), Dawn of War (2004), Company of Heroes (2006) and Supreme Commander (2007) all proved successful. Which the exception of StarCraft II (2010) and several expansions, the genre has not achieved any major sales successes in recent years. Popular wisdom has suggested that the genre has been supplanted by the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) subgenre, which evolved out of RTS games.

Command and Conquer: Red Alert II (2001, Electronic Arts/Westwood)



Due to limited processing power and a paucity of input devices, early computers and home consoles usually depicted strategy games as turn-based affairs, with players giving orders and then hitting an END TURN button to see the results on-screen. As computing increased in power, games became more sophisticated, capable of rendering more complex action scenes. With the introduction in the mid-1980s of the gaming PC, the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST, which all shipped with a mouse as the primary controller, it became possible to click on multiple units and give them orders.
Early games to feature real-time strategy elements include Utopia (1981, not to be confused with the 1991 city-builder-in-space game of the same name) and Cytron Masters (1982), although both games were extremely simplistic by later standards. Utopia was more of a city-builder like the later SimCity and Cytron had a very small unit roster. Still, both games laid down the template for the key aspects of the genre: action unfolding in real-time with the player controlling multiple units (rather than a single protagonist) where the loss of individual units did not lead to a game-ending state. Cosmic Conquest (1982) was the first game to be called a real-time strategy game and codify some of these elements.

Stonkers (1983) and The Ancient Art of War (1984) both contained RTS elements, as did Lords of Midnight (1984), Mike Singleton’s epic game which redefined what computer wargames were capable of. Singleton’s War in Middle-earth (1988) refined this further. In both games players build units on a map and they then fight in a more dramatic real-time display (although in both games players are somewhat hands-off during actual combat, relying on decisions made before the battle to win).

Carrier Command (Commodore Amiga version) (1988, Rainbird)

Carrier Command (1988) was an early example of an RTS played from a different perspective. It saw the player in command of an aircraft carrier which would also build amphibious tanks and aircraft. The carrier could “colonise” islands to turn them into production and resource facilities which would ship materials to the carrier in the field, allowing it to build more units. The game didn’t allow for multiple units to fight in unison, but it did allow them to be sent to destinations on autopilot, with the player jumping between units as the battle dynamically unfolded.

Peter Molyneux’s Populous (1989), from Bullfrog Studios, was played from a top-down perspective familiar to RTS players and allowed for the construction of bases – elaborate cities in this case – with different building types determining the type of troops available. Special abilities, such as being able to blast the enemy with lightning or summon a volcano to appear under their feet, were also available. Again, the game was played in a hands-off manner: although you could tell your troops where to go, you could not control them in battle directly and generally the side with the largest numbers won automatically.

Herzog Zwei (1989), released on the Sega MegaDrive, is often cited as the first proper real-time strategy game controlled from the traditional top-down perspective. In the game the player takes control of a battlemech and can build and order other units, sending them into battle in real-time. Each unit has a number of abilities, requiring significant micromanagement. The game was arguably more successful as a proof-of-concept than a great game in its own right, and many of the stand-bys of the RTS genre were still missing, but the foundations of the genre were clear to see.

The second real-time strategy game was arguably Bullfrog’s Powermonger (1990), a spin-off from Populous in which the ability to create land and use magic was removed but a focus was placed on farming resources, amassing troops and sending them into battle. The game features many of the traditional elements of real-time strategy, including different unit types (swordsmen, bowmen and pikemen) and the need to keep up a supply chain to keep your army equipped and in good health.
Sensible Software’s Mega-Lo-Mania (1991) advanced the concept with the introduction of a tech tree, with units becoming more powerful as the player researches new equipment. The game also moves forward through time, starting with bows and arrows and ending with tanks and machine guns.

Utopia (1991, Gremlin Interactive/Celestial Software)

Gremlin Software’s Utopia (1991) was notable as a real-time city-builder, in the vein of SimCity (1989), but introducing a military element with the player able to build tanks, starships and amass armies. The player cannot control the army directly, only order it to attack the enemy colony (which is off-screen). However, the player can more directly take command of units when defending the colony from alien attack.

Dune, released in early 1992 by the French studio Cryo Interactive, was a curious mix of adventure game and strategy. In the adventure part of the game, the player controls Paul Atreides and directs him to fly around a map of Arrakis, recruiting Fremen leaders to his cause. He sometimes has to carry out side-quests (such as going in search of specific characters or rescue captured personnel). Much of the early part of the game is directed to amassing spice and resources needed to wage war against the rival Harkonnen family. Later in the game Paul can recruit Fremen armies and arrange for their equipping and training before sending them to attack Harkonnen fortresses. Paul can join in attacks personally in a very primitive battle mechanic. There is no option to directly control the battle aside from ordering Fremen troops to withdraw if it looks like they cannot win.

This part of the Dune game was arguably the least-developed part of the title, but it was the part that inspired a “quickie” sequel from Westwood. Released at the end of 1992, Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis (subtitled The Building of a Dynasty in some territories) was the first real-time strategy game containing all of the elements of the genre as we know it.

Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis (1992, Virgin Games/Westwood Studios)

The Rise of the RTS

Dune II sees players start with a simple base, from where they can build harvesters. These harvesters scoop up spice, returning it to a refinery where it is converted into cash. The player spends the cash on new buildings, such as Barracks and War Factories. These buildings can then produce units, such as soldiers, tanks and, later in the game, aircraft. Crafty players will build multiple refineries and more harvesters to speed up cash income to build armies more quickly, although Dune II included a surprisingly effective tactic to slow this down by having massive sandworms attack areas of heavy harvesting activity (attracted by the vibrations of multiple harvesters).

Once the player has amassed a large army, he can attack the enemy. The game came in for early criticism by making this rather laborious. There was no way to select multiple units, so the player had to rapidly click on each unit, on the command (“Attack” or “Move”) and then on the destination. For a large army, this required a huge, rapid amount of clicking. The console ports of the game introduced a context-sensitive cursor, where the mouse would automatically tell units to “Move” to open territory or “Attack” enemy units and buildings. Battles could become very hectic, but a time-control mechanic allowed players to turn the time right down to allow for finer control.

Dune II was massively critically acclaimed on release and it was praised for creating or popularising a whole new genre.

Two games that were influenced by this development were Sensible Software’s Cannon Fodder (1993) and Bullfrog’s Syndicate (1993). Both games were controlled in a similar way to Dune II but allowed for multiple units to be controlled at once. However, there were only a maximum of 4 units in the game and these were assigned before each mission started, with equipment upgraded and assigned between missions from a world map screen. More properly, both games may be seen as forerunners of the very similar real-time tactics (RTT) genre instead, but certainly played in a similar fashion to RTS.

WarCraft: Orcs and Humans (1994, Blizzard Entertainment)

The second game to jump on the RTS bandwagon proper was WarCraft: Orcs and Humans in 1994, from relative newcomers Blizzard Entertainment. Blizzard had experimented with using the Warhammer fantasy setting but, unable to secure the licence, decided to create a more generic fantasy game about human and orc armies fighting one another. Although the game was light on story, it did establish the idea of the orcs as a race and culture in their own right, rather than a band of marauding monsters. The game refined the Dune II formula by allowing for multiple units to be selected at once, either by holding down a key and clicking on one unit after the other, or by holding down “Alt” and drawing a box around the desired forces. This latter idea was revelatory (borrowed from the Windows interface) but hidden away in the manual and many players were not aware it was possible to do this.

The RTS genre was still relatively obscure at this point, but in 1995 Westwood followed up on Dune II with a whole new franchise of their own creation. Command and Conquer was a massive, monster hit, selling millions of copies. It refined the Dune II gameplay with a vastly superior control interfaces, including allowing boxes to be drawn to select multiple units, hotkeys and the ability to group units together into armies selected quickly by tapping a number key. The game also had a surprisingly good (if pulpy) story thanks to full-motion video cut scenes between every mission. The game’s storyline and lore were rich and engrossing, pitting the Global Defence Initiative against the fanatical Brotherhood of NOD for control of Tiberium, a powerful energy source that has come to Earth on meteors.

Westwood followed this up immediately with a spin-off game, Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996) which was far faster-paced than C&C proper, with a much more aggressive playstyle, bigger and more varied maps and a far more impressive unit selection. Red Alert also heavily focused on its multiplayer side, allowing half a dozen players to engage in massive battles against one another. LAN parties soon saw Red Alert displacing Doom as the multiplayer game of choice and even giving the newly-released Quake a run for its money.

Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996, Electronic Arts/Westwood Studios)

A massive glut of real-time strategy games was released in this period, many of them (such as the Bitmap Brothers’ disappointing Z and the rather poor Dungeons and Dragons RTS Blood and Gold, both in 1996) forgettable. The most important game released in this period was WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995). This game was an improvement on its forebear, with superior graphics, far larger armies and the introduction of naval warfare. It also had a considerably more involved and complex story which deepened even further in a well-received expansion, Beyond the Dark Portal (1996).
At this time the introduction of graphics accelerator cards was allowing for visually spectacular games to appear using full 3D graphics. However, the RTS genre remained resolutely focused on using sprites and more traditional techniques. The first games in the genre to experiment with 3D came out in 1997: Dark Reign and Total Annihilation. Both used 3D units and landscapes, although they locked the camera to an overhead perspective to ensure a smooth frame rate. Both games received significant acclaim, but Total Annihilation focused much more on multiplayer with a vast array of units and a huge scale and scope to it which allowed for the player to deploy an army of hundreds of units (as opposed to dozens, at best, in the WarCraft and C&C games). Total Annihilation soon became a multiplayer mainstay and was praised for its graphics but criticised for its very thin story.

Also hugely popular this year was Dungeon Keeper from Bullfrog Software, where the player built up a dungeon stronghold and attracted an army of minions to defend the stronghold and annihilate invaders. Although not a true RTS – the player only directed his army towards an enemy and did not control them directly in battle – it did feature an interesting mechanic allowing the player to “possess” a unit and take direct control of it on the battlefield in first-person mode.

Another significant release in 1997 was Myth: The Fallen Lords, by newcomers Bungie Software. Myth was another real-time tactics game, with unit selection and preparation happening between missions and relatively little freedom to choose the next objective. However, the game’s close-in focus on a small army and a concentration on the micro-management of special abilities and cooldowns was to prove hugely influential on the genre, along with its impressive 3D graphics. Myth II: Soulblighter (1998) was an even bigger success in this regard.

One of the biggest RTS releases of 1997 was Age of Empires, which took its inspiration from Sid Meier’s Civilization series. Age of Empires played ostensibly similarly to WarCraft but with a more equal focus on developing your home city before going into battle. The slightly slower pace appealed to many players and the game ended up selling phenomenally well.

StarCraft (1998, Blizzard Entertainment)

May 1998 saw the release of StarCraft from Blizzard. This was a hugely seminal moment for the genre: StarCraft is the biggest-selling real-time strategy game of all time, selling somewhere in the region of 20 million copies by itself, dwarfing any other individual title in the genre. Building on the WarCraft series, StarCraft had a redesigned interface and much stronger graphics (although still in 2D). The game’s biggest innovation was using three factions rather than the traditional two, making them as different as possible from one another rather than simple reskins with maybe a unique unit or two (as was the case in most RTS games). The game also had a huge focus on story and characters, even using special “hero” units on the battlefield and halting the action for story moments relayed in-engine. This was all brand new for the genre and saw the game win over both single-player gamers (for its elaborate campaign and well-told story) and multiplayer addicts.

In particular, StarCraft became hugely popular in South Korea. Internet cafes were converted into StarCraft war rooms and within a few years the StarCraft multiplayer league was being reported on by sports reporters. This phenomenon was unexpected but exploited by Blizzard who quickly responded by sponsoring events and soliciting feedback from pro-tournament players for patches and updates.

Released around the same time was Battlezone. Ostensibly a remake of an earlier tank arcade game, this was a sophisticated and interesting title where the player both piloted a tank from the first-person perspective but also created new units and ordered them on the battlefield. The game was praised for its action storyline but also by being inarguably a real-time strategy game, just one controlled from the cockpit rather than a god’s eye view of the battlefield. The game won immense critical acclaim for approaching the genre in a completely new and fresh way.

In late 1998 StarCraft received a well-received expansion, Brood War, whilst Age of Empires had an excellent, best-selling sequel (Age of Empires II: Age of Kings). However, the RTS genre was cresting its wave and arguably the decline began with a long-awaited sequel that ended up being a crushing disappointment.

Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun (1999, Electronic Arts/Westwood Studios)

Decline and Fall

Command and Conquer had been envisaged as the start of an ambitious, epic storyline spanning multiple games and ideas, with Red Alert acting as a spin-off. The sequel, however, was delayed significantly. By the time Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun was released in April 1999, it felt a little tired. The game had abandoned tanks in favour of hulking battle mechs and, although the bravery of the move was praised, it was also criticised for abandoning what many people considered to be a key element of the franchise: building an army of tanks and rushing into battle. The slower-paced mechs had a lot less character. The game’s story was also hackneyed and cliched compared to the likes of StarCraft.

Despite these heavy criticisms, the game sold well on release and early reviews were positive, but it wasn’t long before reconsiderations were published criticising the game for its issues. In particular, the lacklustre unit selection and poor pacing of battles meant that multiplayer scene never really took off.

By this time the pendulum had swung away from the RTS genre: first-person shooters had received a fresh shot in the arm from the epic, impressive game Half-Life (released in late 1998) and the once-moribund RPG genre had been revitalised by the rapid release of Fallout (1997), Final Fantasy VII (1997), Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Planescape: Torment (1999). A particularly major problem was that developers had not found a way of getting RTS games to work effectively on consoles, which did not use mice and keyboards. The FPS genre had been suffering from a similar problem before GoldenEye (1997) and then TimeSplitters (2000) nailed a control scheme that worked (and finally perfected by Halo: Combat Evolved from Myth developers Bungie in 2001). Experiments with porting RTS games to console had been undertaken, particularly a so-so PlayStation port of Command and Conquer, but the Nintendo 64 version of StarCraft was awful, and seen by many as the final nail in the coffin of getting RTS games to work on consoles.

The real-time strategy genre was beginning to falter before 1999 was over, which was a shame because the genre was entering a period where it delivered excellent, intelligent games which started to move away from the staid C&C/StarCraft template in search of better ideas.

Homeworld Remastered (2015, Gearbox), based on Homeworld (1991, Relic Entertainment)

A major title in this vein was released in late 1999 by a fresh startup, Relic Entertainment. Homeworld was the first RTS to be set entirely in space, with players mining asteroids and nebulas to build up a space fleet. The game was the first to use full 3D movement, including the ability to attack from above or below the plane of the battlefield, as well as featuring a dynamic fleet that carried over from mission to mission. The game had a superb storyline and one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, along with an incredible atmosphere. A lot of other RTS games were faster-paced, more violent or more elaborate, but Homeworld was – and remains – the most richly atmospheric strategy game of all time, and the first RTS to completely nail 3D in a creative manner. Just a year later it was followed by an excellent spin-off, Homeworld: Cataclysm (later retitled Emergence due to copyright issues with Blizzard), which many fans rated as superior.

A few months later, in early 2000, it was joined by Ground Control from Massive Entertainment. Ground Control was also a beautiful, richly atmospheric 3D strategy game with a good story. Set on a variety of planets, the game’s 3D engine was stunning with rolling hills, towering mountains and jungle landscapes that made for incredible battlefields. The camera could zoom from a wide-roaming view of the entire battlefield right down to individual soldiers, close enough to see their spent magazine cartridges flying through the air as they fired. This attention to detail was a remarkable achievement. The game had some detractors for not being a true RTS – there was no resource management or rebuilding of units mid-mission – but it also allowed for a lot of customisation and unit recruitment between missions.

Both games sold well and received blanket critical acclaim, but neither were smash-hit successes selling in the millions, as they deserved. This was perhaps a sign that the general public was losing interest in the genre.

Around the same time as Ground Control, LucasArts released what should have been a smash hit, home run: the first-ever Star Wars RTS. Force Commander allowed players to fight as the Empire or the Rebel Alliance on familiar planets like Hoth, Endor and Tatooine, restaging major battles from the films with a new storyline following an increasingly disillusioned Imperial general who defects to the Rebel Alliance halfway through the game, explaining why you swap sides. The game should have been great, but unfortunately LucasArts had no experience making RTS games and the result was a stodgy, badly-paced mess of a game. The game made a lot of its asymmetrical warfare – the Rebels were much weaker than the Imperials in a face-to-face confrontation and had to use booby traps, special weapons and superior tactics to win – but in practice this made playing the Rebels as frustrating slog. The game was very slow-paced and looked graphically awful, especially alongside the gorgeous-looking Ground Control. Force Commander was critically mauled (although, to be fair, it wasn’t totally awful and had some good ideas) and quickly forgotten about.

In 2001 Rage Software released Hostile Waters, a fresh take on the RTS genre inspired by the earlier Carrier Command. Like Battlezone the game was played from the perspective of the units on the battlefield. The player could jump from vehicle to vehicle to take direct control of the action. More impressively, the game’s elaborate fiction (created by graphic novel writer Warren Ellis) saw special AI personality chips deployed to control your units. This mean both having a small army (you can only have a maximum of 10 units in battle at a time) and knowing where the strengths of each AI are best suited. Accompanied by an excellent story, the game was critically praised to the high heavens and sold exceptionally poorly, blamed on a lacklustre marketing campaign but, more convincingly, the absence of a multiplayer mode. The game became a cult hit over time, warmly praised in retrospectives, and still sells quite well on GoG to this very day.

However, it was now time for the big RTS franchise to get back in the action. In 2002 Blizzard returned in full force with WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos. Their first 3D game, it contained their typically slavish production values, dedication to storytelling and strong multiplayer ethos. The game also had four factions, although arguably these were not quite as well-delineated as StarCraft’s three. The game was critically praised for both its gameplay and its story, and it became a huge success story at this relatively late stage of the RTS genre’s height of popularity. An expansion, The Frozen Throne (2003) both expanded the game’s content and acted as a prelude to World of WarCraft (2004), which saw the franchise move into the MMORPG genre. Although this took the franchise to the heights of success – World of WarCraft is possibly the biggest-selling video game of all time, with lifetime sales estimated at c. 100 million – it also means that no further WarCraft RTS games have been released since, to the dismay of those fans who had no interest in the online RPG genre.

In 2001 Westwood Studios released Command and Conquer: Red Alert II. After the lacklustre Tiberian Sun, Red Alert II was praised as a return to form with excellent units and a great (if spectacularly campy) storyline. However, the game was still a 2D title, which was seen as rather old-hat by this point. In 2003 Westwood released the 3D Command and Conquer: Generals, a fresh take on the franchise which focused on a new three-way battle between the USA, China and a global terrorist organisation. The initial release was only moderately successful, but the expansion Zero Hour (2004) saw the game become much stronger, with better units and some formidable multiplayer modes. Although it was never in danger of catching up to Blizzard’s level of popularity, the venerable RTS franchise had at least recovered from some bad decisions to produce some solid games. Their only disappointment in this period was Emperor: Battle for Dune (2001), an attempt to got back to where it all started for them, which turned out to be a very lacklustre game.

In 2002 Ensemble Studios returned to their Age of Empires series with a spin-off, Age of Mythology. The game was extremely well-received for both the new 3D game engine and also the decision to start using inspiration from mythology as well as history. In 2005 Ensemble released Age of Empires III, but this proved to be something of a disappointment.

For the newer, younger companies, Homeworld 2 (2003) and Ground Control II: Operation Exodus (2004) both turned out to be commercial disappointments, leading to both series being suspended. This was especially bad news as both games were fantastic, well-written with excellent gameplay. The question at this point was if the RTS genre could survive at all.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (2004, THQ/Relic Entertainment)

The genre received a surprise success in 2004 when Relic Entertainment, stinging from the failure of Homeworld 2, released Dawn of War, a Warhammer 40,000 spin-off. This game was conservative in unit design and selection, control scheme and, oddly, graphics (Ground Control II, released within a couple of months, looked far superior), but its tried-and-tested gameplay and its use of the iconic Space Marines, Eldar, Orks and Chaos Marines from the wargame proved popular. Dawn of War sold millions of copies, spawned numerous expansions and is credited with almost single-handedly raising the profile of WH40K in the United States.

This coincided with the release of the Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War, the third game in their Total War strategy series. This series was interesting because it mixed massive, beautiful real-time battles with a turn-based strategic map, where players raised armies, built up cities and infrastructure and ordered them around. Although it wasn’t a traditional RTS, it did mix the appeal of the subgenre with the Civilization-like itch of moving armies around colourful, attractive maps. Rome was the title that took the series to the next level of graphical attractiveness and accessibility and also siphoned off a lot of RTS fans looking for an evolution of the genre.

In 2006 Relic Entertainment released Company of Heroes, a WWII real-time strategy game evolved from the Dawn of War engine. Company of Heroes eschewed the standard mechanic of harvesting or mining a resource in favour of generating resources from holding territorial “control points” on the map. This encouraged fast, early and aggressive play and discouraged “turtling”, where the players spend their time hiding in their bases before rushing out with an attack force for one decisive battle. Graphically gorgeous – the game still looks pretty stunning today, especially its amazing explosions and physics engine – and making good use of its theme, with asymmetrical warfare handled better than in Force Commander, Company of Heroes was a huge hit. As well as being a critical and commercial success, it generated a loyal multiplayer following which remains highly active today (for example, half a million multiplayer games were played in March 2018, twelve years after the game’s release).

Company of Heroes is often cited as the last outstanding, excellent RTS which broke new ground in the genre, with its deformable battlefield, destructible building and focus on making sure that even early-game units could remain effective throughout the battle (basic infantry units, for example, can lay mines and use sticky bombs to disable even heavy tanks if they’re lucky).

Halo Wars (2009, Microsoft/Ensemble Studios)

The Modern RTS Genre

The last decade or so has seen the RTS genre decline in popularity further. The reasons for this have been pinned on the modern commercial need for games, especially big-budget ones, to be released on console as well as PC to justify development costs and getting a strategy game to work on console has remained a challenge.

Ensemble, the studio behind the Age of Empires series, cracked the challenge in 2009 with Halo Wars, an RTS in the Halo setting. The game was a surprising commercial success and the game was praised for getting the RTS basics to work with a gamepad. Despite this, no other game picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Halo Wars and it remained something of an aberration until the release of Halo Wars 2 (from Creative Assembly) in 2017, which did well on X-Box One and PC.

Back on PC, the RTS was also facing a strong challenge from a rival genre of its own creation: the MOBA or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. The first MOBA was Aeon of Strife, a custom map for StarCraft, but it was a similar map called Defence of the Ancients for WarCraft III that took the budding genre’s popularity to the next level.

In a MOBA, the player controls the action through a near-identical interface to an RTS, but only has one unit, a powerful “hero” who has an array of offensive and defensive abilities. Other units are present in the game, as allies to the hero or static defensive towers, but are computer controlled. Many of the traditional features of RTS games – building a base, developing an army, following an upgrade tech tree – are either missing or hugely simplified in MOBAs. The battlefields are also simplified, usually consisting of a central focused lane which channels the combatants together. MOBAs addressed the key weaknesses of the RTS genre, such as players having to split their attention between many different areas of the battlefield at once, and also made the battles much faster-paced and more visually spectacular, making them perfect spectator games for the budding e-Sports field.

MOBAs exploded in popularity in 2009 with the release of the first stand-alone game, League of Legends. This was followed up in 2013 by the release of Dota 2 from Valve. Both games became immensely successful, some argue to the detriment of the RTS genre.

Other games were influenced by this move. In 2009 Relic released Dawn of War II, a sequel to their 2004 Warhammer 40,000 title. The game reduced base-building to almost nothing and even eschewed building a large army, instead focusing on hero units with other forces as support and cannon fodder. Although not exactly a MOBA or an action-RPG (like the Diablo series), the game fused elements from these genres with the RTS. Although praised for this experimentation from some quarters, the game was slammed by fans of the genre and the first game for moving away from the key features of the genre.

Supreme Commander (2007, THQ/Gas Powered Games)

If many RTS games were going smaller in scale, focusing on smaller, easier to manage armies, Supreme Commander (2007) went in completely the opposite direction. A spiritual successor to Total Annihilation and made by many of the same team, the game has armies fighting across colossal landscapes. Army numbers frequently go into the hundreds and the focus is on massive super-giant robots (the Supreme Commanders of the title) leading these armies into battle. In a baffling move, Supreme Commander 2 (2010) simplified and scaled back the gameplay to appeal to a wider audience, which promptly lost them sales from the core fanbase. Planetary Annihilation (2014), a spiritual successor funded on Kickstarter, failed to win over many new or established fans either.

Amidst a genre stagnating into apathy, it was time for the big guns to ride into battle once again. With Westwood having collapsed, Electronic Arts gave development of the Command and Conquer franchise over to an inhouse team. Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars proved an impressive hit, introducing a third faction (the alien Scrin) and featuring faster-paced gameplay as well as the series’ signature campy video cut scenes. It was welcomed as a return to form for the series, which had faltered with Tiberian Sun. Indeed, the game even redeemed Tiberian Sun with its excellent expansion Kane’s Wrath (2008), which used time travel to re-stage key battles from earlier in the series using older units, as well as addressing plot holes in prior games. Red Alert 3 (2008) was also fun, although the campy silliness the series had achieved by accident was now being deliberately evoked, resulting in a less interesting storyline.

All things have to come to an end, however, and for the venerable Command and Conquer franchise that end came in 2010 with the release of Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight. C&C3 and Red Alert 3 had been successful for going back-to-basics in the genre but EA decided it would be a good idea to go highly experimental for the fourth game. Each side now had a mobile command centre which built units in the field and could be upgraded. There was also no resource management to speak of. The lack of the traditional series elements was heavily criticised, not just for nostalgia reasons but also because it made for much less interesting and more boring gameplay. The game was slated on release and was also a massive commercial failure, signalling an end to the franchise.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010, Blizzard Entertainment)

More positively received was StarCraft II. Announced by Blizzard in 2007, the sequel to the biggest-selling RTS of all time was eagerly awaited. Designed from the ground up to be a spectator e-Sports game, Blizzard devoted its considerable resources to also ensuring the game had a very solid single-player campaign. The game became so ambitious that it was split into three chapters: Wings of Liberty (2010), Heart of the Swarm (2013) and Legacy of the Void (2015). The games sold very well and become extremely popular with e-Sports viewers, although critics criticised the cliched storyline (which was highly derivative of Blizzard’s earlier work) and also the heavy-handed tactics employed by Blizzard to get people, particularly in South Korea, to buy the game and stop playing the original StarCraft. Despite an initially strong reception, there was a drop-off in appreciation for the game, partly due to the insane five years it took for the remaining chapters to be released after the initial chapter was released and also the sprawling unit roster compared to the original game led to a lack of focus. In many instances, critics still found the original game to be far superior. By 2017 Blizzard had apparently given in to the criticism and released StarCraft: Remastered, the original game given a graphical polish but otherwise left alone. This led to a resurgence of interest in the original game.

Other, far more obscure, RTS games went in other directions. R.U.S.E. (2009) from Eugen Systems was a WWII title that allowed players to seed misinformation to enemies and allowed manipulation of the fog of war in a way not previously seen in a game. It’s successors in the Wargame series (2012-14) saw a mix of a turn-based map campaign and a real-time battlefield mode similar to the Total War series but on a larger scale to accurately represent aircraft, tanks and artillery.

The Men of War series, which started with Soldiers: Heroes of World War II (2004) but became better-known with Men of War (2009), is another WWII series which focuses on micromanagement (down to each soldier having limited ammunition) and realism. The series was presented as more of a tactical simulation in contrast with the more “gamey” and “arcade-like” Company of Heroes series and was seen as more hardcore than other RTS games. However, it was also less accessible.

Company of Heroes 2 (2013, Sega/Relic Entertainment)

In 2013 Relic Entertainment released Company of Heroes 2, focusing on the Eastern Front of WWII. This game was relatively well-received especially for environmental factors (reflecting the challenges of fighting in the ice and cold of a Russian winter), but it was criticised for changes to the core gameplay of the earlier titles and being clunkier than the Eastern Front mod for the original Company of Heroes. Although not a bad game, CoH2 was generally felt to be inferior to the original game. It did sell well, allowing Relic to press on with Dawn of War III. Released in 2017, Dawn of War III was slated for its multiplayer focus which left the singleplayer campaign feeling under-developed. The game was also criticised for trying to bridge the gap between the RTS Dawn of War and the MOBA-influenced Dawn of War II and ended up in an awkward halfway house, pleasing fans of neither genre. The game was a commercial disaster and Relic may have been left in trouble, but fortunately had signed a deal with Microsoft to develop Age of Empires IV.

By this time most of the original development team had left Relic and set up a new company, Blackbird Interactive. They planned a new RTS game called Hardware, which they claimed would be a spiritual successor to the Homeworld series. In 2014, following the collapse of the Homeworld IP owners, FPS developers Gearbox bought the IP and joined forces with Blackbird. They released Homeworld Remastered in 2015, a spectacular remastering of both Homeworld and Homeworld 2 with incredible graphics which is now the gold standard for all such remastering efforts. Hardware was also recast as a Homeworld prequel, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, which was released in 2016 and was well-received.

Thrones of Britannia: A Total War Saga (2018, Sega/Creative Assembly)

The Future

The real-time strategy genre is one of the most enjoyable and interesting game genres around, but it’s one that’s struggled to change with the times (unlike RPGs and first-person shooters). The continued lack of a big console-focused RTS means that the genre remains relatively limited in how many players it can attract. The genre is also unfortunately obsessed with nostalgia to a depressing degree: RTS games which use the same template as twenty years ago continue to do well, whilst those games which dared try something new and interesting generally failed, even when the reviews and gameplay were brilliant (most unfortunate in the case of the outstanding but unconventional Hostile Waters). What I think the genre really needs right now is a game that comes along, resurrects the genre and redefines it for the next generation.

In the meantime, there are some interesting new entries on the horizon. Gearbox and Blackbird are carefully considering the merits of developing Homeworld 3, whilst Relic Entertainment are hard at work on Age of Empires IV. Creative Assembly's Total War series continues to draw inspiration from the RTS genre, and there are two new games in the series due this year alone: Thrones of Britannia: A Total War Saga and Three Kingdoms: Total War. Electronic Arts are also clear that there will be new Command and Conquer games at some point, and it'll be interesting to see what they can do with modern graphics technology.

Essential RTS Purchases

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Anonymous said...

Thinking back to the late 1990s: it would have been hard to imagine, in a time when for most people I knew computer gaming WAS Total Annihilation, Red Alert, Age of Empires and Starcraft (with a little Goldeneye to relax, and a little Thief when no-one else was around), that the genre would have disintegrated so totally. Although I guess it didn't last long - soon we were on to Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment and Icewind Dale.

Then again, I guess that it wasn't that much earlier that we played only platformers and beat-em-ups, two genres that rapidly plummeted from total dominance to virtual non-existence... (I didn't have a console and I missed the heyday of SF:II and MK, but I spent a lot of time playing One Must Fall: 2097...)

I think a big problem for RTS is that it inherently falls between two camps, as illustrated by how many of the games you mention here try to blend it with something else. On the one hand, there's the fast-paced combat; on the other, there's the strategy. But there was never much strategy, and strategy fans were always being tempted over to the greater complexity you could produce in a turn-based game. [this was me - I was always frustrated in an RTS, because I was happily building up my little settlement/fortress/whatever, and then everything collapsed into this chaos of battle). Meanwhile, the people who wanted fast-paced combat were being tempted over by RTTs and FPSs.

I think that maybe, as more games have been created to appeal to both sides, the attraction of a game that sits in the middle has waned - it's easier for each type of fan to find what they want in their own genre.

In some ways I think Total War was the big RTS-killer. It's a turn-based strategy, but it's vastly simplified compared to nighmarish simulations like Imperialism, or even compared to Civilization II and its clones, so it gives more strategy than an RTS while still being accessible enough to appeal to the broad market. And in a way it replicates the duality of RTS in a more controllable way: instead of an anxious transition from base-building to battle-fighting, TW lets you do as much building as you like, and only do the battle-fighting when you choose (or skip it entirely). But it still offers that exciting combat as a change of pace, so it still gives both sides of the deal. [And I remember the battles in M2:TW being way more satisfying than the old RTS battles, though admittedly I never played something like Supreme Commander].
If RTS works by offering the best of both worlds - exciting tactics and satisfying stragey - games like Total War meet the same demand, but in a more controllable way that meets both needs more succesfully.

I think the only way a RTS can really take on TW is to come from the far end of the combat side of the spectrum - at which point, you're facing strong competition from RTT, FPS, multiplayer-FPS, MOBA, action-RPG and so on.

I don't think it's a dead genre - I think it can offer its own thing, probably in the form of RTT with minimal resource management and unit-building tacked on, but I think it's an increasingly small mark that developers have to hit, and a game will have to be really, really good to hit it.

Anonymous said...

Ancient Art of War by Brøderbund was the first comprehensive RTS and beats all those you mention by several years.

Anonymous said...

"This part of the Dune game was arguably the least-developed part of the title, but it was the part that inspired a “quickie” sequel from Westwood."

That's not how I remember it: The two games were published independently of each other and in parallel, that's why they have nothing in common.

See also on Wikipedia: Dune II#Development

Clayton Boucher said...

Great article as always.

I find it a bit surprising there was no mention of Rise of Nations (2003) given it was a huge hit critically, and did fairly well commercially (enough for an expansion pack).

Anonymous said...

Dune 2 wasn't a quick sequel inspired by Dune -- both games were developed in parallel and without any interaction.

Anonymous said...

Great write-up!

I'd add The Settlers series. The military system is pretty basic, but as a blend of city-building/economy simulation and RTS the games occupied a pretty fun niche. I need to get back to The Settlers 3 some day.

Battle Realms is also a title that tried some interesting tweaks to the usual base-building/unit production system (and had a really great atmosphere), although it flew pretty under the radar

Unknown said...

Anyone ever played Telewar published in 1987 for Amiga?

Unknown said...

Anyone ever played Telewar published in 1987 for Amiga?
That's the origin

O Bardo da Névoa said...

You forgot to mention The Settlers, The Settlers II, Seven Kingdoms II, and you gave too little credit to Age of Empires I and II.
Besides that, great text!